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Ceno2 wants Singapore to see graffiti as fine art

Mr Azlan, better known as Ceno2, has created several hundred graffiti artworks in Chicago and New York, and has also done numerous local pieces. He is pictured here with an artwork that he did for a local restaurant.
Mr Azlan, better known as Ceno2, has created several hundred graffiti artworks in Chicago and New York, and has also done numerous local pieces. He is pictured here with an artwork that he did for a local restaurant.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Having gained fame as graffiti artist overseas, he wants to help create 'distinct S'pore style'

It is odd to be recognised by strangers in the world's major cities but not in your own backyard. For Mr Mohammad Azlan Ramlan, this is the norm.

Mr Azlan, or Ceno2 as he is better known, is a 30-year-old Singaporean graffiti artist. While not a familiar face in Singapore, he is well known internationally, having done hundreds of graffiti artworks in cities such as Chicago and New York.

He visits Chicago up to three times a year and had his work exhibited there in 2014. He has also been featured on street art websites, such as London Calling Blog.

He remembers how, on his first trip to London last year, many people recognised him. In fact, while he was painting in areas such as the Stockwell Hall of Fame and Leake Street, passers-by stopped to ask if he was Ceno2 from Singapore.

While he is less known in Singapore, he has done work here, too.

Local establishments, including Hotel Clover The Arts, the Singapore Police Force and nightclubs such as Club Kyo have commissioned him to do graffiti work.

Ceno2's interest in graffiti started when he was about 11 years old. As his mother drew the line at painting on the walls of his flat, he started to do so on the walls of a stranger's house. He did not know then that this was considered vandalism.

EMOTIONAL ART

I don't just do art to beautify a place, I want something which people will form an emotional attachment with, and feel for the place.

MR MOHAMMAD AZLAN RAMLAN

"I was caught red-handed by this old man, the owner of the house. Surprisingly, instead of saying that I was doing something wrong or calling the police, he invited me back to his house to paint a wall and paid me $50 for it.

"He was the first person to tell me that I should be paid for my work and I'm very grateful to him as he instilled this passion in me.

"That man actually understood art and I was very lucky and happy to have met him."

After his O levels, Ceno2 went to the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa) to study Western painting. He got his first break at 18, when Popular Bookstore invited him to paint at its Bras Basah Complex branch. He then went on to pursue graffiti full time after his national service. He was first invited to paint overseas in 2012 for an international graffiti event in Chicago and, since then, has been a regular on the international graffiti scene.

Over the years he has developed his own brand of graffiti, which he calls Graffiti Fine Art.

He cites the 17th-century Dutch great Rembrandt as his inspiration, and has created several graffiti versions of fine-art pieces.

One of them is an interpretation of Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo's work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Ceno2 used only spray cans for this work, which was done at the 2012 Chicago event.

He is still fighting for recognition and support from the various art bodies in Singapore, however.

"They are more supportive of the more established art forms; this is an alternative art form that is still breaking out," he noted.

Graffiti's lack of recognition as a fine art has been a problem since his student days. "When I was at Nafa, they claimed that I was not doing 'fine art' because I was doing graffiti." But the lack of recognition has only motivated him to prove critics wrong.

Like his hero Rembrandt, Ceno2 often creates images of people, which are well-received because of their detail.

They line the walls of Singapore's Somerset Skatepark, Metropolitan Avenue in Brooklyn and Germany's Hyatt Regency Mainz. The artist also shares pictures of his works on Instagram where, as iamceno2, he has over 100,000 followers.

"I love adding details and people, upon seeing the end result, always think it's impossible to do it with just spray paint. But it's all free hand with spray cans."

And art, for him, is something which people can connect with emotionally. He said: "I don't just do art to beautify a place, I want something which people will form an emotional attachment to, and feel for the place."

Danger is also no deterrence. He has painted often in the rough South and West side of Chicago, where occasional gunfire is not uncommon.

"Art is able to cross boundaries and make communities better," he pointed out. "Even gangsters would come up to me and tell me that they like my work ."

While the Singapore graffiti scene has some way to go to be on the same level as Chicago's, his favourite city, things are looking up.

He noted a recent trend in which Western cafes which feature graffiti are becoming more popular. So he wants now to focus on Singapore, to "help create our own distinct Singapore identity and style".

"When people look at our art, I want them to immediately know that it's from Singapore," he added.

Explaining his moniker, which he has used for 12 years, he said "Ceno" just "felt right". But the "2" is there for a specific reason.

"In graffiti everyone wants to be number one; but I chose 2 because I'm not number one and never will be; but it will always be a reminder to work harder," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 14, 2016, with the headline 'Ceno2 wants Singapore to see graffiti as fine art'. Print Edition | Subscribe